The push-up is one of the best upper body exercises there is, and one of my favorites. It requires the coordinated action of your pectorals (chest), anterior deltoids (front of your shoulders), and triceps (back of your arms). It also requires your core muscles, and several other muscles, to stabilize your body during the movement. It translates well to a lot of other activities, and learning good push-up form is important for building a foundation of strength and motor control. It’s also a versatile exercise that needs no equipment and can be made easier or more difficult in many ways.
Learning to perform proper push-ups should be one of the first things you work on when starting your training program, but for many people (especially women) doing a good floor push-up can be tough. Don’t worry, if you practice and follow a simple progression, everyone can master the push-up.
Standard Floor Push-Up:
- Place your hands on the floor, fingers spread for a greater base of support.
- Incorrect hand position (too high and too wide) is a common mistake. Your hands should be slightly wider and lower than your shoulders (towards your feet). Your upper arms should at 45 degrees to your body. Think about forming an arrow shape with your hands, head and body, not a T shape.
- Extend both legs with feet about hip width apart, putting your weight on your toes.
- Brace your abs. This is a crucial step and one that many people miss. Without a rigid mid-section, your hips and lower back will sag towards the floor. Think of the push-up as a moving plank. Keep your abs tight and engaged throughout the entire movement.
- Lower your body as a whole (no sagging at the hips or lower back) by bending your elbows. Keep your elbows at a 45 degree angle to your body as you lower yourself. Continue to lower your body in a slow and controlled manner until your chest is within 2 inches or less of the floor.
- Pause for a moment at the bottom.
- Push through your palms to bring your body back up to the starting position, moving the entire body as a rigid unit. Your hips and shoulders should move upwards at the same time.
If you can’t perform a floor push-up with strict form through the full range of motion, train by performing the following exercises:
Perform the exact same movement as in the standard push-up, but with your hands on an elevated surface, such as a bench or countertop. Ideally, use an adjustable surface such as the bar in a power rack so that as you improve you can slowly decrease the elevation until you can perform standard push-ups from the floor. Practice incline push-ups at the same elevation each time until you’re able to perform 10 repetitions with good form and full range of motion (lowering the body until your chest is within 2 inches of your hands). Gradually lower the elevation until you can perform standard floor push-ups.
How will this help?
If you want to get better at push-ups you need to train the full movement, using all the muscles involved to increase their strength and to ingrain the neural patterns needed to coordinate the movement. Many people who can’t perform floor push-ups use the knee push-up as a replacement. I don’t recommend that, because knee push-ups don’t require the same neural pattern as the floor push-up and they don’t activate the core muscles to the same extent. You’re better off performing incline push-ups, which mimic the movement of the standard push-up with less of the body’s mass as resistance.
Negative Floor Push-Up
Get into the standard floor push-up position. Perform only the lowering (“negative”) portion of the push-up by bending your elbows to lower your body to the floor. Emphasize that movement by fighting gravity and lowering yourself as slowly as you can. It should take you at least 2-3 seconds to lower yourself all the way to the floor. You can get back into the starting position any way you want. Complete as many repetitions as possible in a slow and controlled fashion, aiming to work up to 8-10 repetitions in each practice session.
How will this help?
The “negative” (or lowering) part of an exercise is known as an eccentric contraction, when the muscle resists force while lengthening (as opposed to a concentric contraction in which the muscle shortens as it produces force). A concentric contraction during a push-up is when you push your body away from the floor. The strength of a muscle during an eccentric contraction is greater than the strength of that same muscle during a concentric contraction, approximately 20-60% greater depending on the muscle group being tested (Hollander et al., 2007).
The explanation for this difference in strength between eccentric and concentric contractions is complicated and requires an in-depth discussion of the intricate details of muscle microstructure and contraction, but basically an eccentric contraction requires less energy and takes advantage of the elastic properties of the muscles which resist contraction the way a rubber band resists stretching. The end result is that the lowering part of the push-up exercise is easier than the pushing-up part, because the main muscles involved in the movement (the pectorals, anterior deltoid, and triceps) have to work less hard to control the downward movement than they do to create the upward movement. Those muscles do still have to work, though, the core muscles still have to stabilize the body, and the nervous system still needs to coordinate the actions of all the muscle groups so they work together to achieve the movement. Practicing the “negative” part of the push-up will increase your strength and body control, which will allow you to improve your performance of the full push-up.
Putting It Together
If you can already perform at least 2-3 perfect floor push-ups, try practicing a few push-ups in every session, or even a few times per day to fast track your progress. Make sure you stop before your form starts to break down, and aim to do just one more push-up in at least one set per week.
If you can’t do a floor push-up yet, practice incline push-ups and negatives at least 2-3 times per week, or even a few times per day to fast track your progress. Make sure you stop before your form starts to break down, and aim to do just one more rep in at least one set per week. Once you can do 10 perfect incline reps, lower the incline and start working your way back up to 10 again. Repeat that process until you get to the floor.
Floor Push-Ups Too Easy? Try These More Advanced Versions
Once you can do 10 consecutive perfect floor push-ups, you can start training a harder version. There are many advanced push-up variations, some much harder than others.
Here’s a great list of 82 different push-up variations. My favorites are the single leg push-up, spiderman push-up, decline push-up (the article calls them feet-elevated push-ups), and clap push-up.
Now you know what it takes to perform a perfect push-up, so get out there and start practicing!